Left field at AT&T Park in San Francisco is spacious — but compared to center field and right field, it’s not terribly complicated. No unusually high brick walls; no tricky angles. After Barry Bonds left the team, the Giants rotated some pretty mediocre defenders through left (and towards the end, Bonds was pretty mediocre himself). If the left fielder could hit, he’d probably be an overall plus, despite subpar range or weak arm. Think Pat Burrell in 2010.
The Washington Nationals’ four-game series in San Francisco this week, then, couldn’t have worked out better for new left fielder Ryan Zimmerman. The former Gold Glove third baseman made his first start in left on June 3 after returning from a 51-day stint on the disabled list for a broken right thumb. Zimmerman’s in left because Bryce Harper went down with his own thumb injury that is expected to keep him off the field until July. The Nationals moved Anthony Rendon to third — his natural position — and Danny Espinosa came off the bench to retake his old job at second. Before Zimmerman, Tyler Moore and Nate McLouth rotated in left and posted an 88 wRC+ and 58 wRC+, respectively.
But there’s much more to it. Zimmerman has been battling an arthritic condition in his right shoulder since 2012 and the injury has significantly affected his throwing motion. From 2007 through the 2011 season, Zimmerman had two of the top 10 defensive seasons for third baseman in the league, as measured by Defensive Runs Saved. Cumulatively, the only third baseman better than Zimmerman in those five seasons were Evan Longoria, Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen, again using DRS.
That all changed with the shoulder injury in 2012. A cortisone shot allowed him to play through pain — and he delivered at the plate to the tune of a .352 wOBA and 121 wRC+ — but his defense suffered. He and the Nationals hoped off-season surgery would alleviate the pain and the effects of the injury on his throwing motion, but 2013 wasn’t much better from the hot corner. Zimmerman’s cumulative DRS from 2007 through 2011 was +55; in 2012 and 2013, it dropped to -2.
Before breaking his right thumb on April 12, Zimmerman played 69 1/3 innings at third base. According to Inside Edge, he faced 19 “routine” chances and four “likely” chances and converted only 94.7% and 75% of them, respectively.
Zimmerman’s DL stint, coupled with Harper’s injury, gave the Nationals time to think about what to do with Zimmerman when he returned. And it’s not just this season at issue. Zimmerman is in the first year of a six-year, $100 million contract extension that he and the team inked just before the 2012 season. So as the thumb healed and Zimmerman began baseball activities, the Nationals asked him to focus on outfield drills. He was more than happy to oblige.
Before Wednesday night’s game against the Giants, Zimmerman seemed relaxed and almost giddy about his week as the Nationals left fielder. “It’s going well,” he told me. “It’s a lot different than playing third base. There’s a lot more time to react.” That said, Zimmerman acknowledged that he never thought about how much goes into playing an outfield position. “There’s the footwork to get ready to catch and throw and the mental exercises of running through all the scenarios depending on the runners on base.” He said it was a great opportunity to “learn a different side of baseball” after playing one position all these years.
“I’m having a lot of fun,” he repeated several times during the interview. There was also a strong sense of relief for Zimmerman. “Third base has been rough, physically and mentally. Nobody likes to fail.” Having the chance to move to left field has “eased his mind.”
After we spoke, Zimmerman went out and played a dandy left field. He saved a run in the bottom of the sixth with an inning-ending diving catch on a slicing line drive off the bat of Brandon Crawford.
The next inning, he charged a sinking liner and made another sliding catch. (Sorry, no embed link yet). There were also four fairly routine fly balls to left that Zimmerman handled just fine. Overall, in 78 2/3 innings in left field through Wednesday night’s game, Zimmerman caught all nine “routine” fly balls, as characterized by Inside Edge, and converted one of two “likely” chances. He’s failed to make plays on five “impossible” and “remote” chances, which means, so far, he’s not as good as Geraldo Parra or Will Venable.
All of this sounds like a happy ending for a franchise player with a career 120 wRC+ who’s signed through 2019. Not so fast, says manager Matt Williams. The Nats’ skipper was emphatic before the game that when Bryce Harper returns to the team, Zimmerman will go back to third base. He told reporters before Wednesday’s game, “We got a pretty good outfielder hopefully coming back really soon. The perfect world is, Zim would go back to third, where he’s played a long time and won a Gold Glove. And when Harp’s ready, Harp will play left. That’s the plan.” Williams added that Rendon would shift back to second and Espinosa would return to the bench.
A lot can happen between now and Harper’s return, of course. Center fielder Denard Span — who is on a hot streak after a miserable April at the plate — could go cold again. That might prompt Williams to move Harper to center and keep Zimmerman in left. First baseman Adam LaRoche could cool off after a torrid start to the season and give Williams a reason to start Zimmerman at first for a bit. There are also possible trades as we move closer to the end of July. The Nationals hold 2015 options on Span ($9 million) and LaRoche ($15 million).
For his part, Zimmerman says he just wants to give his team the best chance to win. In his view, Rendon at third gives the Nationals that chance, but then grinned and added that having too many good players is “a nice problem to have.”
Perhaps it is, as these logjams have a way of working themselves out when other players get injured or go through cold spells. For Zimmerman’s sake, let’s hope so.
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